Since the withdrawal of Luftwaffe units from Sicily in mid-1941, the task of bombing Malta had fallen to the Italians. However, during the next few months, Malta was able to recover as a base for offensive operations, and by the late autumn of 1941, the enemy supply situation in the Mediterranean had become so serious that the Axis leaders decided that Malta must be neutralised. As a result, in November 1941, Fliegerkorps II was transferred from the Russian front to Sicily.
The Luftwaffe immediately started to make its presence felt, as air raids rose to 169 in December, compared to 76 during the previous month. However, the worst period was to be from the beginning of January until the end of April 1942, when Malta was subjected to constant day and night attacks aimed at annihilating its offensive capabilities and weakening its defences, in preparation for the island’s projected invasion, codenamed Operation 'Herkules'.
The attacks were aimed at the airfields, the dockyards and harbours, stores, barracks, and communications. RAF losses were extremely heavy. In fact, at one point, there were only a handful of serviceable fighters left to defend Malta, while swarms of enemy aircraft were able to bomb the island virtually without opposition. In the same period, 21 Royal Navy warships were sunk in the harbour or its approaches, and a further 13 were damaged.
Although most attacks were directed against military objectives, populated areas did not escape unscathed. Extensive areas in Valletta, the Three Cities, and the villages near the aerodromes, such as Luqa, Ħal Far and Ta' Qali, as well as other parts of the island, were devastated. Tens of thousands of houses, as well as a number of churches, were reduced to debris. In Valletta, as well as in other places, numerous historic buildings were destroyed. Crumbled buildings collapsed into heaps of masonry, blocking entire streets.
The 15th of February was one of the worst days. There were a total of four raids between 2 am and 11.35 pm, which in total lasted 19 hours and 59 minutes. At 5.54 pm, an aircraft flying over Valletta dropped a stick of three bombs. One of them hit the Grandmaster’s Palace, another the Casino Maltese, where eight people were killed, while the last one hit the Regent Cinema. At the time, a film was being screened, and the cinema was packed. The building collapsed, burying the audience beneath the rubble, resulting in the death of 15 civilians and 26 servicemen.
In March, the majority of the raids were directed against the airfields. Ta' Qali in particular was subjected to an assault of unprecedented proportions because the Germans believed the British were operating an underground hangar. Hundreds of armour-piercing, incendiary and high-explosive bombs were dropped, and the airfield became littered with bomb craters and burning fighters and equipment. It was only through the hard work of servicemen and civilians that, after every raid, the airfield was again operational within a few hours.
By this time, the majority of the Maltese population was living almost permanently in underground shelters. Whilst these were considered relatively safe places of refuge, some of them turned out to be death traps, and there were a number of shelter tragedies. On 21st March 1942, two bombs hit the entrance and emergency exit of a shelter in Mosta simultaneously, resulting in the death of a number of people who were sheltering inside. Three days later, Kalkara was subjected to heavy bombing, and a number of people were killed when they were overcome by fumes from a burst gas pipe as they entered a shelter to rescue those trapped inside. On the same day, around 28 servicemen and civilians were buried alive under thick concrete roof slabs, when their shelter at Ħal Far airfield received a direct hit. Although moans and groans could be heard coming from underneath the rubble, the rescue party was unable to shift the massive blocks of concrete, and the bodies of those inside were not recovered until some months later. One of the worst civilian tragedies took place in Luqa on 9th April 1942, when a bomb hit a shelter where 32 people were seeking refuge. The bomb pierced a wall dividing the shelter from an underground water cistern, sending boulders and water rushing inside. The injured were in danger of drowning in the rising water, and although a number of people were rescued, 23 of them were killed, their bodies horribly mutilated by the explosion.
By far the worst month of the blitz was April 1942, as the attacks increased in intensity. During this month, Malta was under alert for a total of 12 days, 10 hours, and 20 minutes, during which 6,727 tons of bombs were dropped, resulting in the deaths of 339 civilians and 208 servicemen. A number of prominent buildings were also hit. On 7th April, the Royal Opera House in Valletta was destroyed, while two days later, Mosta Church was also hit during a heavy raid on Ta' Qali: At about 4.40 pm, a bomb pierced the dome and bounced on the floor below without exploding, somehow also missing the congregation of around 300 people. Although the dome was damaged, incredibly no one was injured. Unfortunately, it was a different outcome when St. Publius Church in Floriana was struck by several bombs on 28th April. Apart from badly damaging the church, the roof of the crypt, used as a public shelter, collapsed, trapping those inside. A number of survivors were rescued but thirteen people were killed.
The destruction wrought by the April blitz was almost catastrophic. The dockyard and airfields were devastated, and military buildings were severely damaged. By the end of the month, the Luftwaffe reckoned that Malta had been effectively neutralised as a naval and air base, as every military target appeared destroyed. However, they did not reckon with the stubborn resistance of the defenders, and the resolution of the civilian population, which had won them widespread admiration in Britain and other Allied nations. These qualities were recognised by the King himself, who, in a letter to the Governor of Malta, dated 15th April 1942, announced the award of the George Cross to Malta “to honour her brave people” and “to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”.
The George Cross had been instituted by King George VI in 1940 to reward acts of civilian courage, and its award to Malta made front page news in newspapers around the world. Because of the incessant air raids, the presentation ceremony, which took place in Palace Square in Valletta, had to wait until 13th September 1942. The bestowal of this prestigious award, highly appreciated by the Maltese, helped to boost the morale of the people and the defenders.
By May 1942, the situation in Malta had started to change, mainly due to the impact of Spitfires, which were being delivered in large batches. Luftwaffe aircraft found that they no longer enjoyed the freedom of the skies above Malta. By the end of the month, the strength of Fliegerkorps II had been heavily reduced, and air superiority over Malta had been won back by the RAF. Furthermore, due to the success of Axis convoys in resupplying their forces in North Africa while Malta was being battered during the preceding months, the Afrika Korps was now advancing towards Egypt, and Luftwaffe units based in Sicily were diverted to assist in this campaign. Over the next few months, air attacks on Malta were much reduced.
The final attempt by the Luftwaffe to subdue Malta from the air would be undertaken in October 1942, by which time, however, British fighter opposition was so intense that, after about eight days, the attacks were called off, as they were proving too costly.
This blog was first featured on Combat Archives.